Ought to I ebook award journey for 2021?
At the end of the … tunnel is there finally light? Year? Air cabin corridor that indicates an emergency exit?
Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other experts put off traveling during the winter, many once frequent travelers wonder if it is time to wipe those travel credit cards and old reward points and miles away from book trip in 2021.
Or is it too early? We’re all looking for the sweet spot between availability and feasibility – between hitting the trigger when booking trips before everyone else, and booking too early and having to (re) schedule a new appointment.
I made and broken so many travel plans in 2020 out of false optimism that I hesitate to make any predictions. With my luck, aliens will likely hit Earth when this article gets published, making it absolutely out of date.
Aside from extraterrestrial invasions, there are some clear “Do’s” and “Don’ts” to consider whether, how and where to travel in the coming year.
Here’s what you should do: Book flexible rates and rooms
One of the big travel pieces of news in 2020 was the decision by many airlines to remove change and cancellation fees on most fares, including some award tickets booked with miles. This followed a number of ad hoc guidelines throughout the year and changed the paradigm for booking flights.
In short: the stakes are now much lower. You can use points or cash to book tickets for Summer 2021 without worrying about high fees if your plans change, the vaccine doesn’t work, aliens blow up the moon, or … whatever 2021 has in stock.
A few precautions before you book a trip: First, many basic economy fares cannot be changed or canceled. Second, many low-cost airlines like Spirit and Frontier will have less flexibility in 2021 and beyond. You should avoid these cheap fares and airlines until normal is restored.
Hotels haven’t changed their change and cancellation policies as extensively, but they have always been less strict than airlines. Plus, it’s generally easier to book hotel rooms at the last minute so you don’t have to break a sweat on the property just yet.
Don’t: Play the vaccination guessing game
It can be tempting to read the epidemiological tea leaves to understand when you might have access to the vaccine and when it is safe to travel. Yet even the most adorable infographic of where you are in line can’t tell when you will actually get your shot in the arm. Too many variables are in the way.
And if you’re like me – neither old nor young, with no health problems, and not considered an essential worker – then you are probably at the bottom of the line. Does that mean you should give up hope of booking a trip this year?
Not necessarily. Many models of the pandemic, like that of the Institute of Health Metrics and Assessment, now contain predictions of how infection rates will change in the coming months with the introduction of the vaccine.
This model predicts that, despite the moon explosions, infection rates could drop to much lower levels by April as more people are vaccinated and transmission rates drop. In other words, the pandemic can subside significantly before you get your shot.
Do: Go big
Airlines and hotels are in the process of attracting travelers in 2021, which means prices are low and the availability of awards is open. For normal economy travel, this open availability doesn’t mean much, but for those considering one-time bookings, this is a great opportunity.
For example, I’ve tried booking prime seats with Singapore Airlines from Los Angeles to Tokyo since I started earning points, but availability on this route is typically low. While searching for flights in the fall, I found a lot of availability at lower budget fares, which means that a one-way flight costs “only” 107,000 Singapore miles.
Even though Alaska Airlines’ partnership with Emirates is a shell of its former self, some sweet spots remain, such as the flight from Dubai from the west coast to Asia with a long one week layover between flights. These are essentially two trips in one, and when I searched, business class fares were still available.
On the hotel front, a notoriously tight availability is also open in the spring like the Hyatt-affiliated Ventana in Big Sur, California.
Yes, these are all extremely high quality redemptions, and I usually preach simplicity and usefulness when it comes to travel rewards. They are by no means “low value” redemptions. The Ventana Room is $ 1,600 per night when paying in cash. This corresponds to 3.3 cents per point for the above-mentioned redemption and is thus far above our rating for Hyatt points.
But here’s the real perk: 2021 presents an unprecedented opportunity to book notoriously elusive award travel. If you are sitting on a pile of dots, now may be the time to burn them up.
Not: Rely on the borders to open immediately
Yes, some models predict that infection rates will decline in the coming months, but that doesn’t mean cautious destinations will immediately open their borders to American tourists if they do. And to be honest, I’m not sure I want to visit a country that would have me as a visitor now.
I assume that countries will open their immigration controls more slowly than we may have thought. You may be able to book a flight to Europe for the fall, but this is no guarantee that you will be approved in due time.
However, if you’ve booked a flexible ticket, that uncertainty shouldn’t be a big deal. You can simply push back your flight.
The final result
When people ask me why I love visiting Mexico City, I say it’s just dangerous enough to scare off the tourist treasures. Traveling in 2021 presents a similar opportunity and puzzle: if you play your points and miles just right, you can get a good ticket to an uncrowded destination. However, if you fly too close to the sun and book early, there is a risk that the uncertainty of COVID-19 will ruin your plans (again).
Make sure it’s flexible, sensible, and fun. It could be your last chance to fly business class before the aliens arrive.
Not sure how to use your points and miles? I am here to help. In this column, I’ll answer your questions about the confusing world of travel rewards, and I’ll cut the jargon for clear answers to real problems. Send your questions to [email protected]
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Sam Kemmis writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @samsambutdif.